July 30, 2013
The Vanderbilt Commodores return 17 starters and 41 letterwinners for the 2013 season. The returnees include eight starters and 18 letterwinners on offense, seven starters and 21 letterwinners on defense, and two of three specialists.
Vanderbilt looks to improve off a 2012 campaign that featured second-year Head Coach James Franklin guiding the Commodores to a 9-4 overall record capped by a 38-24 victory over N.C. State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The squad tied a school record for both single-season wins and SEC victories en route to securing a Top 25 final ranking and the first back-to-back postseason bowl appearances in program history. Offensively, the 2012 Commodores produced more points than any Vanderbilt squad since 1916. On defense, the Commodores ranked among the NCAA Top 20 in numerous categories and limited opponents to the lowest scoring average in more than a decade. Special teams also ranked among the nation's best, with placekicker Carey Spear and punter Richard Kent earning All-SEC honors.
The Commodore offense, which averaged 40.1 more yards in 2012 than the previous year, features the veteran wide receiver tandem of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who amassed 2,097 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012. Three backs with productive resumes - Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour - will step in to fill the void left by two-time All-SEC recipient Zac Stacy. Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, a two-year starter in the Mountain West Conference prior to transferring to Vanderbilt, is pushing to replace Jordan Rodgers at quarterback. The offensive line features four returning starters, including All-SEC candidate Wesley Johnson.
The defense returns six of its top seven tacklers from last year. The secondary is loaded with talented veterans, including cornerback Andre Hal and safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall. The linebackers are paced by returning seniors Chase Garnham and Karl Butler. Ends Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike are key returnees on the defensive front.
For the second straight year - and third time in seven seasons, Vanderbilt kicks off ESPN's coverage of FBS college football when the Commodores host Ole Miss on Thursday, Aug. 29.
The schedule has Vanderbilt making mid-September road trips to South Carolina and UMass sandwiched around home games against Ole Miss, Austin Peay, UAB, Missouri and Georgia. The slate also includes back-to-back SEC road games at Texas A&M and Florida. In late November, the Commodores play Kentucky at home and Tennessee on the road before hosting Wake Forest in the season finale.
Despite the graduation of two-time All-Southeastern Conference running back Zac Stacy and two-year starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the Commodores have several talented players ready to step forward in the offensive backfield.
At quarterback, four prospects topped by redshirt senior Austyn Carta-Samuels will enter preseason camp competing for the starting role in Vanderbilt's opener against Ole Miss. Likewise, at least four contenders are hoping to secure the tailback vacancy left by Stacy's departure.
Though Carta-Samuels has started just one game at Vanderbilt, he was a two-year starter at Wyoming, guided the Cowboys to a bowl win and was the 2010 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year. He came out of spring drills with an edge over his competition, giving the offense a strong-armed veteran at the quarterback role.
Redshirt sophomore Josh Grady, redshirt freshman Patton Robinette and true freshman Johnny McCrary are expected to provide strong competition for Carta-Samuels.
Grady is a dual-threat prospect who moved to quarterback in Spring Practice after participating as a wide receiver last year. Robinette showed mobility, thorough knowledge of the offense, and an accurate arm during the spring. McCrary displayed plenty of athleticism and arm strength throughout spring practice.
The tailback role looks to be a competition between redshirt senior Wesley Tate, sophomore Brian Kimbrow and redshirt sophomore Jerron Seymour. Redshirt sophomore Derek King and two freshmen, Ralph Webb and C.J. Duncan, also are candidates.
Tate and Kimbrow combined for 789 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last year in support of Stacy. They bring different skills to the position: Tate bringing power to the attack, Kimbrow offering more quickness and big-play abilities.
Senior Fitz Lassing returns as the starter when the Commodores add a fullback to the mix. He has competition from redshirt junior Blake Gowder among others.
Three walk-on prospects - Hasan Clayton, Will Fritz and Joseph Hoffman - complete the running back corps.
The Commodores return arguably their impressive receiver corps in program history, paced by the Southeastern Conference's most potent duos at wide receiver.
Second-year coach Josh Gattis returns the team's top three wideouts for a second straight year. Tight ends mentor Charles Bankins also has multiple letterwinners back. Both coaches have newcomers on the roster ready to make their case for playing roles.
Leading the Commodore returnees at wide receiver are senior Jordan Matthews, a preseason Biletnikoff Award candidate and consensus All-SEC pick, and redshirt junior Chris Boyd. Together, the Matthews-Boyd tandem has combined for 231 catches, 3,537 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns. They were the SEC's No. 1 duo last year, setting a team record with 2,097 combined receiving yards. Matthews is on pace to challenge several SEC career records. Remarkably, Boyd is ahead of Matthews' pace through two years.
Vanderbilt also returns a third multiple-year starter at wide receiver in senior Jonathan Krause. The team's top punt returner, Krause has 56 career receptions. Redshirt junior Trent Pruitt could easily play their way into roles this fall.
The staff also signed five talented wide receivers last February: Carlos Burse, Jordan Cunningham, Gerald Perry, Latevius Rayford and DeAndre Woods.
Along with the abundance of outside receiving threats, offensive coaches expect to see more production this season from a young corps of tight ends. A pair of redshirt sophomores Steven Scheu and Kris Kentera, were becoming aerial targets as the 2012 campaign closed. Scheu, like junior Dillon van der Wal, is more of a classic tight end, possessing the physical frame to effectively block SEC ends and linebackers. Kentera, a converted quarterback who has packed on nearly 30 pounds since arriving on campus, might be the team's most versatile receiving option over the middle.
Bankins is eager to evaluate tight end prospects Nathan Marcus and Mitchell Parsons from the 2013 signee class.
Kentera and senior Fitz Lassing also are potential H-backs on offense.
The Commodores return an offensive line that features six veterans with starting experience and a corps of talented redshirt freshmen eager to begin their collegiate careers.
In 2012, Herb Hand's line helped Vanderbilt produce its most potent offense of the modern era. The unit's 30.0-point scoring average is the highest single-season average since the mid-1910s. The 379.7-yard total offense average was 40 yards more than the previous year, and the fourth highest by a Commodore offense since the 1940s. Holes opened by the line also helped senior Zac Stacy become the first Commodore running back to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and set new team career standards with 3,143 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns.
Anchoring the line is versatile All-SEC candidate and 2012 co-captain Wesley Johnson, who enters his fifth year with 38 career starts at four different line positions. He projects as the team's starting left tackle. In 2012, Johnson didn't allow a single quarterback sack while starting at both left and right tackle.
Redshirt junior Andrew Bridges, who spent the offseason adding bulk, is back to compete for the tackle role across from Johnson.
The staff will need to replace two starting guards that graduated, Seattle draftee Ryan Seymour and Josh Jelesky.
Two juniors, Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend, and redshirt sophomore Jake Bernstein were effective interior starters in 2012. Pulley and Townsend both started at center while Bernstein impressed as a physical presence while starting multiple games at both guard positions.
Redshirt junior Chase White adds quality depth, with game experience at guard and tackle. Senior Ryan Brockway also provides depth at guard.
At the conclusion of spring drills, redshirt freshmen Barrett Gouger and Andrew Jelks were contending for starting roles at guard and tackle, respectively. Both are big, talented prospects who should contribute this season.
Three other redshirt freshmen - Blake Fromang, Will Holden and Kevin McCoy - bring more potential to the corps.
The team's signing class also includes highly regarded prospects Delando Crooks and Sean Dowling.